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So you think you can fixer up?

Or, the seemingly never-ending renovation…

Or, “Fun with the 203K loan.

Seeking to escape the frenzy, noise and HOA overlords of our South Riding, Virginia home (and ditch the upside-down, ghastly mortgage), Hubs and I bought what we hope will be our “forever home” on the side of a mountain in Warren County.  It’s just outside the “Canoe Capital” Front Royal, Va.   It’s a fabulous location and the view off the deck, clearly visible through the double set of patio doors in the den, is amazing.  In the winter we can see the entire upper Shenandoah River valley.  We are treated to spectacular sunsets every night.

When we started our property search we knew we’d be better off with a “fixer upper”, and would likely take out a guaranteed FHA renovation loan to finance the work.  It’s been a long, long process, between getting the financing approved, getting contractors and putting up with dust, noise and intrusions during what seemed like a never-ending reconstruction process.  Looking back I can definitely state that the results made it all worthwhile.

Not wanting to end up in another upside-down home (that’s a long story for another day), we decided to do some of the work ourselves.  That was a good idea.  Buying the cabinets, appliances and light fixtures on credit wasn’t such a good idea, but que sera sera.

Our first step was to strip out all the carpet from the entry floor (technically a basement, but it’s a raised ranch.  The entry isn’t even at grade level.)  We paid Lowe’s to install hand-scraped Acacia engineered hardwood flooring on the entire lower level except one little bathroom.  That enabled us to move into the house with our two cats, who were certain to pee on the carpet.   We hired a fantastic crew of polite, energetic and STRONG young men with two trucks from Shenandoah  Valley Moving and Storage.  Some of our stuff they offloaded at a climate controlled storage facility near the old house in Chantilly, VA.  Some of it they offloaded at their own storage facility near Front Royal.  The rest of it they crammed into a couple of rooms in the new house, out of the way of the early renovation stages.

Included in the 2 truckloads they delivered was the entire shipment of IKEA cabinets for the kitchen.  We bought the cabinets in April during IKEA’s annual kitchen sale, saving enough in the process to pay for the bathroom cabinets which we purchased later.  I’ll save the IKEA story for an entire future post.

203(k) Financing

Until we started looking for older homes, I’d never heard of this program.  Hubs found out about it online, and we started trying to learn more.  This seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in real estate.  Ever wonder how all those clients for “Property Brothers”, “Fixer Upper” and the like get their money?  It’s likely the FHA 203(k), but they never mention it.  They should.

We couldn’t find a lot of information on the program, but the best source was the HUD website.  Simply put, this program enables qualified buyers and homeowners to finance up to 110% of the appraised value of the home AFTER REHAB.  There are two types of rehab loans, the streamlined and the full 203(k).  The streamlined loan is for “minor” rehab and cosmetic upgrades, between $5000 and $35,000 in total cost.  It’s a simpler process, and approval is often easier and quicker, hence the name.  You can find a lot of information on this loan through a simple Google search.  Here’s one decent source.  You’ll note there are a lot of limitations.  For instance, you can’t do structural repairs, and you can’t pay any subcontractor in more than 2 draws.

We knew our project would easily exceed the streamlined loan limit.  The house we bought hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1988, except to repaint the interior and install new carpet (what a waste of money on both items, since we immediately tore out the carpet and all the walls got repainted.)

There are steps you need to follow if you use 203(k) financing, and try your best to A) do them in order, and B) be patient!

  1. Hire a design firm or architect to draw up plans.  We skipped this step.  I’m an engineer, had access to some decent home design software, and my father was a builder.  I figured I could draw up the floor plan changes, make up a list of details, and that would suffice.  It did, but I wish we’d paid the few grand to have professional plans drawn up.  We’d have saved a lot of time and even money down the road.

    For instance, when the contractor submitted my floorplans for permit approval, the plan reviewer had a lot of questions and markups, that revealed how little I knew about code requirements.  We could have saved a month just by having a professional designer involved.

    Even if you are making all your own design and aesthetic choices, get someone who knows current local codes work the drawings.

  2. Once you have your drawings, hire a 203(k) consultant.  This person works on a flat fee basis, with fees established by HUD.  The cost is around $1200 total, depending on how many draw inspections you pay for.  The up-front fees are included in the mortgage.  The consultant inspects your property up front for any damage or obvious code deficiencies to bring the home up to HUD requirements.  For instance in our case, our consultant spotted a lot of exterior damage that we hadn’t.  She also required some minor lot regrading that will likely save us some water damage in the future.
  3. The consultant will draft a Specification of Repairs (SOR).  All of the work to be done is broken down by craft:  electrical, plumbing, tile, drywall, painting, exterior are all detailed in separate sections.  This facilitates your general contractor’s paying his subcontractors.
  4. Once you have your drawings and the SOR, THEN start getting general contractor bids for the work.  HUD requires you to have a general contractor.  It can be a family member if you’re lucky enough to have a relative in the business.  In a few rare instances they will approve the homeowner as the general contractor but it’s not recommended.  It wasn’t a consideration for us.  Not only did we not have the expertise “in house” we didn’t know any of the local tradesman.  You really want someone who already has working relationships with subcontractors and who can hire quality.

    Try to get at least 3 bids.  Good luck.  This is where we ran into our first (and worst) problems.  We had three factors working against finding a good contractor:  availability, familiarity with the 203(k) process and the financial health to be able to work on spec.

    The biggest drawback to the 203(k) program is designed to protect the homeowner.  HUD structured the program such that the contractor isn’t paid until work is complete.  No money upfront.  If the contractor has to borrow to purchase expensive materials or fixtures, then he eats the cost of financing or lumps it into his overhead.  This used to be the way all general contractors worked.  In recent years, however (or maybe it’s just true in “hot” building markets) contractors have begun wanting at least half up front.  This has led to a lot of heartache for homeowners left with shoddy or incomplete work if the contractor takes their money and disappears, or does part of it then goes belly up.  So HUD requires payment AFTER completion, in up to 5 draws.  That puts the burden on the contractor, who must be able to buy materials on account and have subs who will trust they’ll get paid.

    We went through the entire yellow pages, all of HomeAdvisor, Angie’s List, recommendations from our neighbors and every web search we could dig up looking for someone to bid on our work.  We ended up with two bids and selected the most reasonable.  We liked the guy and his office manager.  We got along great and they seemed to know their business.   The contractor was related to our realtor (should have been a red flag right there, but we were getting desparate).

  5. Once you have a bid from your selected contractor, then provide him with the SOR and INSIST that he structure his bid to EXACTLY conform to the breakdown in the SOR.  We were fortunate in that our consultant was patient enough to rework the bids, otherwise we might have paid a lot extra to have her take the contractor’s by-the-room bid and break it down by craft.
  6. When you have an SOR, with costs, overhead and contingency (usually 10-15% to cover unexpected items), then apply for financing.  You’ll probably have only a couple of lenders who deal with these loans.  We found 2–one in nearby Manassas, Virginia, and another in Washington, DC (close to my workplace).  We ended up going with the local lender for convenience–and the fact that the loan officer was so much more available and responsive.

    The loan application, appraisal and underwriting process is very similar to any purchase mortgage.  The only real difference is that the appraisal submits two reports.  One is the appraised value of the house as-is.  The second is his estimate of value after the renovation is complete.  This is another area where having a professional designer or architect involved can help.  The better your appraiser can visualize the finished project, the more likely you are to get an appraisal that provides enough money to do the work.

    We provided our appraiser with detailed drawings and specs for the kitchen cabinets, cost sheets and specs on all the appliances, and lots and lots of photographs of every design choice we’d made, right down to the cabinet pulls and light fixtures.  We had samples of our tile and engineered flooring.  We had specs for the upgraded Shaker style interior doors.  We spent several hours with him, making sure that he knew how the house would look.

  7. With approved financing, you can start work.  We did 95% of the demolition ourselves.  The contractor supplied a dump trailer (no room on our extremely sloped lot for a dumpster) and we had a blast tearing out walls, ripping up floors and smashing out tile.  The best part we saved for last; tipping the old commode over the deck rail into the dump trailer 20 feet below.  <insert video>.  The only part we couldn’t finish was removing the top of the stud walls from the ceiling.  That was causing blown-in cellulose “dog barf” insulation to cascade into the house.  We left the last bit for the professionals.

    We worked around the plumbing and wiring, cutting wall studs to enable us to leave the wires hanging in place.  The circuit breakers were pulled, but we wanted to leave the electricians the most flexibility.

  8. Keep your contractor.  That’s when everything sort of fell apart.  It had taken so long to get the financing approved that summer was in full swing and our contractor had taken on other work.  So much so that he had no workmen available for our project.  We started demolition in May.  On August 1 we turned the project over to the contractor.  By the first of November we still had no permits, and no guaranteed start date.  We ended up having to fire that contractor, pay him for the dump loads and a trivial bit of other work, and start again.

    It took 2 months and a half-dozen site visits before we finally had a new contractor.  What was even more difficult that finding a 203(k)-savvy contractor was finding one who wasn’t afraid to work on our mountain in the winter.  We’re only about half-way up the mountain and the roads are good in all but the worst conditions.  Nevertheless, every contractor we interviewed either refused to work on spec or was afraid to get held up by snow and ice.

    Work finally started in mid-February.  That was one year after we closed on the purchase loan.  We’d been living in a house with no central heat and camping out in a single bedroom downstairs, using a “camp kitchen” since June.

  9. With permits in hand and properly displayed onsite, your contractor can begin work.  We worked very closely with our contractor to determine the order in which things were worked.  We needed to get the kitchen completed first.  We had to assemble and hang 27 IKEA cabinets, which required him to get the rough-in electrical, plumbing and drywall finished first.  The floor had to go in before cabinets, and the wall painted.  He hung the rails for us (trust a professional to get the cabinet rails installed level, true, flush and plumb.  Your entire kitchen depends on it, since the cabinets hang from rails).

    We allowed our contractor to place a realtor-type lockbox on the house to give the subs access if we weren’t home.  I work out of the house three days per week.  Having a couple of weekdays where I was onsite to answer questions really streamlined things, but I had to put up with a lot of noise (and be presentable at 7 am when strange men would start working in my house).

  10. As things progressed, we were finally able to start paying the contractor.  The process is simple:  the consultant inspects the work and determines the degree of completeness for each task in the SOR.  For instance, the kitchen floor was tiled, so that was agreed–between us, the contractor and the consultant–to be 25% of the total tiled flooring.  Every aspect, from stud walls to drywall was inspected and a factor applied against the total work to arrive at a value for the work completed.

    (Incidentally, if you are familiar with the concept of Earned Value Management, you can compare the amount of work paid for against the amount of time spent to see if your project is on track.  Our guy had completed 25% of the work but had passed the half-way point in our project schedule.  We met with him to talk about what steps he would take to complete the project on time. )

  11. The bank will draft a check for 90% of the value of completed work.  Both the homeowner and contractor have to endorse the check, which is sent FedEx to the homeowner.  So you control the money flow–another way to keep your contractor honest.
  12. Cha-cha-CHANGE.

    I challenge you to complete any home construction or remodeling project without at least a few changes.  HUD provides change forms for the homeowner or consultant to fill out.  The contractor’s quote or invoices for the cost difference gets attached and it becomes part of the SOR.  Among the types of changes you might see:

    – Fixtures or finishes that end up costing more than estimated.  We had change orders for bathroom fixture selections that were over the allowance the contractor specified, and for a slight over-run on the kitchen countertops.

    – Unforseen issues, such as electrical systems that have to be updated to code and are discovered once the walls are opened.

    – Scope changes.  We decided halfway through construction (after we knew we were unlikely to see any more surprises) to replace the original-equipment vintage air conditioner with a heat pump.  This allowed us to eliminate the planned baseboard heaters in every room–code required a thermostatically-controlled, hardwired heating system in every room.  We also eliminated some items from the scope, resulting in a negative cost adjustment.

  13. When you and your contractor agree that everything is finished FINALLY (be sure to have a warranty in place for punchlist items and issues after completion) the consultant will perform a final inspection against the SOR and all change orders.  Then the bank will issue a final draft to pay the remaining money owed the contractor.  If there is any money leftover from the 10-15% contingency, that money is either:
    – deposited into the loan account against the outstanding principle, or,
    – refunded to the homeowner to defray the cost of out-of-pocket items or homeowner purchased material.  In our case, the remainder was just enough to pay us back for the appliances we purchased from Sears (during an annual markdown, of course).
  14. Callbacks.
    There will always be a few missed punchlist items, problems or things everyone missed during all those inspections.  We found a dead electrical plug in the den that had been cut off when the electricians rewired the kitchen.  We’d mentioned it during the project but it fell in a crack.  The electricians did a great job running new power to that circuit without doing a lot of damage to the finished drywall.  We also had some minor issues with plumbing in the utility space that took a few callbacks to resolve.
  15. I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of establishing, and maintaining, good relationships with your contractor, your 203(k) consultant, your loan account manager and your local suppliers.  As in any other aspect of life, being able to talk about issues as they arise, and work out solutions together, makes the process so much less stressful.

If you have questions about the process, send me an email to








Bill’s best chicken stock



This stock takes time to prepare, but the effort is rewarded by a rich, flavorful stock that’s good enough to drink. Unless you are on a clear liquid diet, however, freeze the stock for soups.  I learned this stock preparation from my Daddy.  Mardi Gras 011

Roasted chicken makes the best stock. If you don’t have access to already-cooked rotisserie chicken, then you’ll have to start by roasting one.

One whole chicken, cut into pieces (split breasts, thigh quarters, back and wings. Wash thoroughly, and include the giblets (neck, liver and gizzard) if you are starting from a whole bird.

Grease a 13″ x 9″ baking dish and lay the chicken inside, skin-side up. Sprinkle with your favorite seasoned salt. I prefer either Lowry’s seasoned salt, or Penzey’s 4/s (regular or smokey).

Bake at 350 deg for 45 minutes, until the meat pulls easily off the bones using a fork.


Skin the chicken pieces and remove the meat. Save the meat for chicken salad, casseroles or soups. It can be frozen in a ziploc at this point. If you don’t freeze the meat, refrigerate in an airtight container and use it within a week.

Place the skin, bones and pan juices into a large pot (at least 12 quarts). If you want even richer flavor, use a heavy knife or kitchen shears to split the leg and thigh bones to expose the marrow.

Cover the chicken with water, plus about 2-3 inches.
– The heart and leaves from one bunch of celery (save the outside stalks for munching). The leaves release the best flavor into the broth.
-2 whole, scrubbed carrots (no need to peel) or about a cup of baby carrots.
-1 large onion, cut into large chunks
– 1 Tbsp (tablespoon) of poultry seasoning mix. If you don’t have the mix, use 2 teaspoons (tsp) rubbed sage, 1/2 tsp ground thyme and 1/2 tsp ground marjaram. If you are substituting dried leaves, double the quantities. If you are using fresh herbs, triple it.
– 3 large bay leaves
– 2 TBSP worchestershire sauce

Now, this part is important.

Boil the everlovin shit out of your stock. Bring it to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat to low (just enough to maintain a simmer), cover and simmer for at least 2 hours. Longer is better. Be sure to vent the lid (if your lid doesn’t have a vent hole, put a toothpick between the lid and the pot rim).

Keep an eye on the simmering stock and add boiling water if it gets lower than about an inch over the bones.

When you’ve boiled the stock until the bones are clean and starting to get soft, turn off the heat and let it cool, covered. This can take up to an hour, depending on whether you’re using cast iron or steel cookware.

At this point,

you can either go ahead and process the broth, or leave it on the stove with the lid on overnight.

Using a flat strainer or slotted spoon, remove as much of the bones and vegetables as you can. Then strain the broth through a sieve (mesh strainer) into a clean bowl, pot or pitcher. Wash your original cooking pot and set it aside. Throw away the solids.

If you can get cheesecloth, drape some over your (cleaned) strainer and re-strain the broth through the cheesecloth. You now have ready-to-use broth. If you cooked it over 2 hours, the broth will not be clear, but that’s okay. All that opaque quality is the yummy goodness extracted from the veggies and bones. You **CAN** drink this broth on a clear liquid diet.

. Pour the strained broth back into the washed pot and bring it to a hard, rolling boil. Turn off the heat and let it cool to about 140 degrees F (it should just feel hot to touch if you stick in your finger –if you don’t have a thermometer).

Pour the still-hot (but not too hot) broth into plastic containers with tight lids. (If it were too hot, the broth might melt the containers.) Lid the containers. Set out to cool until the sides feel like room temperature. Refrigerate and use within a week, or freeze immediately, being sure to set the containers upright.

When you want to use your broth, you can microwave in the container until thawed, or run warm water on the outside of the container to release the broth from the container. Put it into your soup pot frozen, and thaw on medium heat.

You’ll notice that the fat rose to the top and can be scraped or skimmed off before you use the broth, or you can use a gravy separator to skim the broth hot. There’s also a trick we learned from oil spill cleanup: use strips of paper towels to skim off the fat by laying them across the top of the broth (turn off the heat to avoid catching the paper on fire). Pull the strips off and repeat until you no longer see an oily slick on top of the broth. This works with all soups, stews, gumbo and chili.

MLK was a troublemaker, and his Dream is not fulfilled.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson delivered a moving and possibly controversial speech yesterday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC.  Here is the text of that speech, in it’s entirety.



Washington, D.C.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

(As delivered)




It is a special honor for me to be present with you, at this special place, on this special day.


Martin Luther King Jr. is a 1948 graduate of Morehouse College. I am a 1979 graduate of Morehouse College. As such, I have been inspired and influenced by many of the same people and things that inspired and influenced Dr. King.


When I arrived at Morehouse in August 1975, Dr. King had been dead 7 years, but I could still feel his presence on campus and in the city of Atlanta. In 1975, there were still faculty at Morehouse who had taught Dr. King. Martin Luther King Sr. came to campus to preach, and reminded us that, despite the murder of his son and his wife, he didn’t hate anybody. Benjamin Mays, the former president of Morehouse and Dr. King’s mentor, was an ever-present and noble figure on campus. Martin Luther King III was my classmate and study partner, and is a close friend of 38 years.


The very first effort to make Dr. King’s birthday a holiday was just four days after he was assassinated in 1968, when Congressman John Conyers offered a bill to make it so. For years, the bill went nowhere.


The movement to make Dr. King’s birthday a holiday gained momentum in Atlanta in the 1970s. Mrs. King made it her mission to see the Nation honor her husband every year on his birthday, and Mrs. King and her son Martin enlisted Morehouse, Spelman and other college students as the foot soldiers in the effort.


On November 2, 1983, President Reagan, with Mrs. King at his side, signed a bill that made Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, effective for the first time on the third Monday in January 1986.


Today the name Martin Luther King is one of the most recognizable in America. Almost every major city in America has a street named for him. Almost every public school in America has his picture in a classroom.


However, in this year 2015, Dr. King has now been dead longer than he was ever alive, and most Americans alive today were born after April 4, 1968. For some of us, Dr. King is still a contemporary figure. For most of us, King is a figure consigned to history, like the other men for which we have built monuments in this space, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.


Almost every American alive knows the words “I have a dream” should be associated with Martin Luther King. How many Americans know what Martin Luther King actually fought for and died for?


The reality is that, in his time, the man we honor today with a national holiday was divisive; to many, he was a troublemaker, to force the social change we now all celebrate. He challenged the social order of things and pushed people out of their comfort zones. When Dr. King arrived in many of the same cities for which a major street is now named for him, the Mayor and the Police Commissioner viewed his visit with dread and couldn’t wait for him to leave.


For his efforts, the man we honor with a national holiday and a national monument, alongside Washington and Lincoln, was the target of racist insults, bricks, bottles, numerous death threats, a knife in the chest in Harlem in 1958, and finally, an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968.


In life Dr. King focused the Nation’s attention on racial discrimination – he led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-1956, the march on Washington in 1963, and the Selma to Montgomery march fifty years ago this year.


But, after Selma, Dr. King did not stop. From there, he began to take on challenges that could not be remedied by a change in the law.


In the last years of his life, Dr. King devoted himself principally to two very ambitious agendas: fighting poverty, and world peace. In 1966 Dr. King and his family literally moved to Chicago and rented an apartment there. He took off his preacher’s suit and shoveled garbage, all to demonstrate the need for better living conditions in Chicago.


In the final few months of his life, Dr. King devoted himself to a grand plan for a Poor Peoples’ March on Washington. On January 15, 1968, his last birthday alive, Dr. King presided over a meeting in the basement of his church in Atlanta and talked to an assembly of blacks, American Indians, Appalachian whites and organized labor that would converge on Washington later that year to demand that the richest nation on earth address the poverty in its midst.


In the final days of his life, Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, not for a civil rights march, but to support a garbage workers’ strike for better wages and conditions.


On the final night of his life, in Memphis, Dr. King delivered one of his best known speeches in which he predicted his own death – his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. What is less known about that speech is that it was largely an address about economic power, and the effectiveness of an economic boycott.


In the final year of his life Dr. King publicly opposed the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King hated violence. He believed that violence “is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” and that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…As he saw it, “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”


Last week when I asked Martin what I should say here today, he said very simply “tell them Dad wanted a better world for all God’s children. And that struggle is not over”


The irony of today is that Mrs. King’s dream of a national holiday for her husband has become a reality; Dr. King’s dream of a world at peace with itself has not.

In 2015, hatred, violence and poverty still inhabit our Nation and our planet.


The good news is that there are many angels among us, who also inhabit this planet and inspire us all to do better – like the health care worker who risks her health life to treat the Ebola patient in West Africa, the people who have responded to the terrorist attack in Paris with the words “not afraid,” and the scores of people who take this day off from work, to go to work performing a community service.    


On this day in 2015, in the name of Martin Luther King, we must re-dedicate ourselves to a better world, in which God’s children choose to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, choose conciliation over confrontation, brotherhood over hatred, and peace over war.


Thank you for listening.

Tenda Bake Banana Oatmeal Mini Breakfast Loaves

    banana tenda loaves wl

Tenda Bake:  if you haven’t got it, you don’t get it.

tenda bake 7 grainIf your grocery store doesn’t carry the Tenda Bake 7-grain pancake & waffle mix, then demand it, and if that fails, find a source online!  This is, hands-down, the best damned, most fiber-filled, awesome pancake you’ll ever have.  My entire extended Alabama family is so hooked on it I have to pack a box and send it to them.  This mix is fantastic for camping; all you have to do is add a little milk, and warm up your griddle.  Once cup of mix serves 2–these are very filling.  (Did I mention the fiber?)

tenda bake 7 grain nutrition

Like Bisquick and any other pancake mix, Tenda Bake already contains all the ingredients (leavening, eggs, fat, seasoning, etc) you need to make a biscuit, muffin or other baked good), so I’ve been experimenting a bit.

If you’re making pancakes, the stuff is all in the mix and all you add is mix.  But if you are adding in extra bulk with bananas and/or oatmeal, you’ll need to add some extra lift, so I boosted my loaves with a teaspoon of baking powder and a couple of eggs to hold them together.  Because I prefer a richer flavor, I used half and half, but you can cut a few (I’m talking 30 calories in the entire recipe) by using low fat milk or fat free yogurt.  (Come on, skinny beeyaches…live a little).

Tenda Bake 7 Grain Banana Oatmeal Mini Loaves

  • 2 cups Tenda Bake 7 Grain Pancake and Waffle Mix
  • 1 cup quick oats
  • 1 tsp baking powder (make sure it’s fresh–it goes bad after a year or so)
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas (3-4, depending on size)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp Penzeys Pure Orange extract (optional–can substitute vanilla)
  • 1 tsp dried orange peel (or 1 tbsp fresh orange zest)–optional
  • 2/3 cup half and half (or low fat milk/fat free yogurt)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Spray a nonstick mini-loaf pan (mine had 8 sections) with non-stick spray (PAM).mini loaf pan

In a large mixing bowl, combine the pancake mix, oats and baking powder.

In a separate, small bowl, smash the bananas (TIP:  I use a hoop-style pastry blender to smash bananas and avacodos).  Add the eggs, orange extract and orange peel.   Stir to blend, then add to the dry ingredients.

Add the cream to the bowl and stir to combine.  Spoon the batter equally into the loaf pan, making sure all the sections have the same amount of batter.

Bake at 325 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.  Mine baked for 25 minutes in the upper (small) oven of a Kitchen Aid gas oven (non-convection).  I used a Baker’s Secret non-stick mini loaf pan.

Serve with butter or margarine.  I tried it with Bon Maman cherry preserves…way too much.  These are so lovely, and the orange flavor is so subtle that you don’t want to cover it up with jam.

Can I have some Cheese to go with this Whine?

Bye daddy

Whining is so unattractive.

Ah but this is a vintage whine, so bring me some aged cheese.  Preferrably blue-veined Stilton, with Bosc Pears and some nice crackers, please.

I’m caught up in too many important issues all demanding my utmost attention:  2 banks; 1 WV permit inspector; a dozen noisy neighbors; 1 untenable work situation; menopause; diabetes; hypertension; weight gain; insomnia; 3 cranky, geriatric pussycats; 1 dead lizard (sorry, Victoria Heather Gold); migraines; and, then there’s trying to be helpmeet to Chad Blair, who deserves to have me share his not inconsiderable burdens.  I’m not supposed to whine.  I’m supposed to <<pause and remember it’s 9/11>>.  I’m supposed to be thankful I’m (relatively) healthy, have a (relatively) secure job that pays the bills (even though I hate it and have to commute 3-4 hours a day).  I’m supposed to look on the bright side, be calm and keep a stiff upper lip.


A wise person (or perhaps several) once said:  “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Those are easy words to say, but how many people can actually execute that sentiment?  Or as the song goes:  “Nice work if you can get it, and if you get it..won’t you show me how?”

The reality of modern, urban life is you have to pay the bills, and through the years, we get suckered into the expectation of what “life” is supposed to be, including the home, the 2 cars in the garage and all the stuff that goes with it.  We fill our lives with hobbies and all the bits and junk they entail, but somehow never get around to using up.  We spend according to (or beyond) our income.  We may, if we are diligent, save a bit for the future, but mostly, we dress fancy, drive sporty and live high.  Until diabetes and cranky knees catch up to us.  Until that job we had to get to support that lifestyle (even though it turned out to suck the hell right out loud within six months) turns out to be a no-escape nightmare.

Why are some jobs so difficult to escape?

I work for the federal government and live in the western suburbs of Northern Virginia (we call it NoVA), out past Dulles Airport.  It was as clost to the city as we could afford, and it provided my husband a reasonable commute to his job in the local school district.  At the time we bought our home, every mile closer to Washington, DC added $10,o00 to the price of a home.  It pretty much still does, 10 years later.  We also, due to a lot of circumstances, had to buy in 2005, and refinance in 2007 at the peak of the real estate boom.  Now we’re stuck, with a mortgage package that is still underwater by about 5-7 % considering seller closing costs.

So we can’t move because we can’t sell our house for what we’d have to pay out at closing.  It will take another 2-3 years to make that much at the rate the sluggish local market is going.  Two years of tea-party conservatism, government shutdowns, and other attacks on the federal budget mean the local economy is beginning to slump at a time when the rest of the nation is growing.  Since we can’t sell or refinance our terrible mortgages, I can’t afford to get another job that pays less than the GS-14 position I occupy.  These jobs are at the highest eschelon of government staff.  They are usually offerred to in-house, hand-picked candidates, therefore my chances of landing another job in the government are slim to “ain’t gonna happen.”

Work outside the government is contract, temporary, and nobody is hiring now since all the contractors are in layoff mode.  Working as a consultant in my prior field means constant travel, potentially overseas, and with my health issues is ill-advised.  So I’m stuck with a bad job situation in a house I’m beginning to hate in a neighborhood I hate even more.

What’s so bad about the place?

I suppose…I should love it.  Except the house next door is 15 feet away.  The lots are all 500o to 11000 square feet (ours is the largest on a corner), and the neighbors all find it necessary to occupy every weekend day using 3.5 to 5 hp gas weed trimmers so loud we measured 85 decibels standing at our own doorway.  I’m not exaggerating and we have the video to prove it.  This symphony starts at 7:30 am and lasts until dusk most Saturdays and Sundays.  Then there are the children.  They scream as if they are being murdered.  For hours.  In postage stamp lots just a hundred feet from my deck.  Try and relax from an horrid work day and 2-hour commute to the sound of tantrums and screaming.  I dare you.

Our house is 16 years old, so it needs a few things touched up.  We’d love to schedule them as we have time and money, but our HOA inspects every house, every year, and gives us a punch list and 30 days to comply, or they will fine us.  What they will ding us for this year will likely cost between $3 and $10 thousand dollars–that we don’t have.  All to “maintain property values” on a house that has been underwater since 2007.  I wonder if anyone has ever successfully sued their HOA for failing to uphold property values?

We had an escape plan…

But that, too, is going to pieces.

We bought some land in West Virginia.  It’s on the side of a mountain with gorgeous views of the Potomac valley in the winter when the leaves are off the trees.  We hope to build a home there whenever we can sell our house.  We planned to put a small, pre-built log cabin on the land this fall, as an escape for the weekends and vacations.  That hope came crashing down this week.  We learned that the local building code inspector intractibly insists on viewing this cabin as a residence and falling completely under the International Building Code.  Compliance will be impossible.  If we can’t work this out, we can’t have our cabin, and we’ll likely have to sell our beautiful land in which we’ve invested our hopes, dreams, 2-1/2 years and over $60,000.

But wait, there’s more…

I’m also fighting with the servicing banks on both my mortgages, but I won’t go into that here.  I’ll just say that if you don’t have to do it, don’t.

Yes, I’m whining.  It’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to.

I Was Neutral before it Was Hip

LR Wall

Rockport Grey. Everyone’s favorite neutral.

  Gray Paint is Splattered all over Pinterest

I (well, my first husband and I) bought my first home in 1985.  He wouldn’t let me go wild and paint the whole house to suit myself.  I was stuck with the color scheme, but managed to tweak the wallpaper in a r0om or two.  Ditto the next house.  We bought the third one under construction, but the builder had already had it decorated and we were stuck with the colors.  They were pretty but not mine.

I dream in color.

It’s true.  I dream in color.  Technicolor.  I have vivid dreams that include full color, texture and even smells.  I often remember my dreams in great detail, and have done so all my life.  I’ve also dreamed since buying that first house of decorating an entire home with one basic neutral color with different color accent walls in the various rooms.  I wanted a house with calm, soothing gray walls since the late 1980s.  I planned it since the 1990s.

Same tune, different verse.

New husband, another new home under construction, and AGAIN, the decorator has had at it.  The scheme is REALLY close to the previous home with the old husband (burgundy and a lighter green).  I did get to choose the flooring and the lights. I still have the 24K gold chandelier from that home (I always wanted one–it was part of my little girl “princess fantasy”).  Chad and I moved that fixture 3 times.  It’s in a box.  Want it?

FINALLY, several years later, we bought a home 1000 miles away with enough funds left over to hire painters and repaint from top to bottom.  We had to.  The prior owner, a sunny, vapid blonde, had decorated in BRIGHT, blinding yellow and grass green.  I couldn’t stand it.  The little girl’s room was so pink the walls glowed.  Her son’s room was a blue light district.kitchenpaintbeforeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA???????????????????????????????

I went to Benjamin Moore, bought quality paint, hired professional painters, and have colors that, TEN years later are, funny enough, all the rage.

Rockport Gray

I selected Rockport Gray (HC-105 for my all over neutral.  My painter thought I was nuts.  It’s warmer than typical gray, with a taupe-y undertone.  I admit that in the basement it’s a little too dark.  In the bedroom with red curtains it gets a tad rosey.  I’m making plans to put a glaze over the bedroom walls to brighten it up a bit.


The bedroom in Rockport Grey. Depending on the window treatment (I change it often) the room can be a bit dark.

On the main floor, that Rockport Gray is phenomenal.  I used Old Navy (2063-10 for opposing accent walls in the den and kitchen.  The dining room has eye-popping Raisin Torte ((2083-10 below the chair rail.

DenGreatroomDining corner

We (hubby and I) painted an awning striped accent wall in the living room over a holiday weekend, and still came away kissing…that speaks volumes about our marital relationship and how we communicate.  I’ve since learned that you need to press that masking tape down with a credit card to keep the edges from bleeding, but it looks great from at least 2 feet away!  Many people have wondered how we found wallpaper that matches our paint so well!


Painted awning stripe accent wall in Raisin Torte and Old Navy over Rockport Grey.


I pulled in a few side by side comparisons of the before and after shots. OMG the yellow!  Friends, if you are marketing your home, either pony up the money to paint over your beloved bright colors down to neutral, or hope that your buyer has both the imagination and money to paint, as I did.  That yellow just about turned me off this home.

The kitchen, before and after.

Kitchen after

The kitchen after renovation.


The original kitchen.


Here’s the bedroom wall looking into the hallway, with neutral Rockport Grey everywhere. Oh, we ditched the antique tv.???????????????????????????????

The original bedroom paint, kind of a suede brown. You can see that bright yellow in the hall.


So there you have it.  Dreamed about in 1985.  Wished for in 1992.  Accomplished in 2005.  I had a neutral gray house before Pinterest made it hip.  Before Pinterest.  Before some of the girls on Pinterest even had hips…

Building a Green Log Cabin with a Blue Roof


Kickstarter officially approved our campaign…

to finance the research and design of a modern log home with as many green/energy and environmentally sensible technologies as we can make feasible and still make it an attractive, comfortable, desirable and resellable home.

 If you contribute, we have some decent swag for donors, including cool photos and weekends in our Little Cabin in the Woods.

Why Kickstarter?

  1. Green energy technologies are EXPENSIVE.
  2. WV is  black hole for new technogies, and that’s where this cabin will be built.  Currently, there are no providers for solar energy collectors, geothermal heat pumps or other such technologies, so we need money to entice them to participate.
  3. Consultants cost money.  We have an expert, Dr. Charles Pickering, right in our WV back door, who has designed and built the first LEEDS * certified home in WV.  He’d like to be paid to participate in this project.  After all, this is his source of income. 
  4. Try going to a bank for this kind of funding.  In West Virginia.  In RURAL West Virginia.  Seriously.*Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification



Click this link to download a BRIEF slide slow about the technologies we hope to consider.  littlecabin

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